Values in transformational sustainability science: four perspectives for change

  • Andra-Ioana Horcea-MilcuEmail author
  • David J. Abson
  • Cristina I. Apetrei
  • Ioana Alexandra Duse
  • Rebecca Freeth
  • Maraja Riechers
  • David P. M. Lam
  • Christian Dorninger
  • Daniel J. Lang
Special Feature: Original Article Theoretical traditions in social values for sustainability


Despite the normative nature of sustainability, values and their role in sustainability transformations are often discussed in vague terms, and when concrete conceptualizations exist, they widely differ across fields of application. To provide guidance for navigating the complexity arising from the various conceptualizations and operationalization of values, here, we differentiate four general perspectives of how and where values are important for transformation related sustainability science. The first perspective, surfacing implicit values, revolves around critical reflection on normative assumptions in scientific practices. Sustainability transformations concern fundamental ethical questions and are unavoidably influenced by assumptions sustainability scientists hold in their interactions with society. The second perspective, negotiating values, is related to the values held by different actors in group decision processes. Developing and implementing solution options to sustainability problems requires multiple values to be accounted for in order to increase civic participation and social legitimacy. The third perspective, eliciting values, focuses on the ascription of values to particular objects or choices related to specific sustainability challenges, for example, valuations of nature. The fourth perspective, transforming through values, highlights the dynamic nature and transformational potential of values. Value change is complex but possible, and may generate systemic shifts in patterns of human behaviours. Explicit recognition of these four interconnected values perspectives can help sustainability scientists to: (1) move beyond general discussions implying that values matter; (2) gain an awareness of the positionality of one’s own values perspective when undertaking values related sustainability research; and (3) reflect on the operationalizations of values in different contexts.


Sustainability transformation Transdisciplinarity Value negotiation Eliciting values Value shift 



We thank Moritz Engbers for an inspiring discussion on Perspective 1. This research was supported by the Volkswagenstiftung and the Niedersächsisches Ministerium für Wissenschaft und Kultur funded project ‘Leverage Points for Sustainable Transformations: Institutions, People and Knowledge’ (Grant Number A112269). We are also grateful to two reviewers for critical and helpful comments that have much improved the paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Japan KK, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andra-Ioana Horcea-Milcu
    • 1
    Email author
  • David J. Abson
    • 1
  • Cristina I. Apetrei
    • 1
  • Ioana Alexandra Duse
    • 1
  • Rebecca Freeth
    • 1
  • Maraja Riechers
    • 1
  • David P. M. Lam
    • 1
  • Christian Dorninger
    • 1
  • Daniel J. Lang
    • 1
  1. 1.Faculty of SustainabilityLeuphana University LüneburgLüneburgGermany

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